The Long Blue Line: Oliver Henry—warrior, leader, minority trailblazer and FRC namesake

Thursday, February 20, 2020

 By mamanning1in History onFebruary 14, 2020No comments

William Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area

. . . through his relentless pursuit to serve the Coast Guard as a skilled petty officer aboard CGC Northland during World War II, [Oliver Henry] successfully moved from the wardroom as a steward to the engine room as a motor machinist mate.
               -Master Chief Petty Officer the Coast Guard Vince Patton, 1999

In the U.S. Coast Guard, there are thousands of highly motivated men and women doing extraordinary things. This kind of individual has guided the Service through its 230 years of history. The model of such a Coast Guardsman was Oliver Tony Henry, Jr., an African American who led the Coast Guard toward greater diversity during World War II and the postwar era by shattering color barriers in the U.S. military.

In 1921, Oliver Henry was born in Winterville, a small town in Eastern North Carolina, near the city of Greenville. When still a child, his parents re-located to Washington, D.C., where he attended Grover Cleveland Elementary School and Shaw Junior High School. After finishing at Shaw, Henry began working at the nearby A & P Grocery Store as a clerk. However, his true calling was the field of mechanics and engineering, so he landed a job at Gordon’s Service Station & Garage, where he excelled as an auto mechanic.

Oliver Henry early in his Coast Guard career. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Oliver Henry early in his Coast Guard career. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Henry came from a military family. His father and namesake, Oliver T. Henry, served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War I and two of his younger brothers would serve in the Army in World War II. Eighty years ago, in 1940, after working several years as an auto mechanic, Henry enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard at the Baltimore recruiting office. After basic training, he shipped out to New York and served aboard the cutter Manhattan and then the Champlain.

In 1941, he shipped out on Cutter Northland. Aboard Northland, Henry participated in numerous historic events and operations. In September, a few months before the U.S. entered World War II, Northland began operating in the Greenland theatre of operations. A few months later, the cutter took into custody the foreign sealer Buskoe, considered by some the first capture by U.S. forces of an enemy vessel. A month later, the Coast Guard established a unified Greenland Patrol with Northland acting as flagship under famed officer “Iceberg” Smith. In 1942, Northland rescued several aviators forced down on the Greenland icecap—the last aerial rescue resulted in the deaths of heroic Coast Guard aviators John Pritchard and Benjamin Bottoms. In 1943 and 1944, Northland played hide-and-seek with German trawlers and enemy weather stations hidden on Sabine Island and on Greenland’s eastern coast. For example, in July 1944, the cutter’s crew discovered the remains of the German trawler Coburg and, in September, chased the trawler Kehdingen for 70 miles through ice flows before its Nazi crew scuttled it and surrendered.

A rare color photo of Cutter Northland in the Arctic ice in 1944. (U.S. Coast Guard)
A rare color photo of Cutter Northland in the Arctic ice in 1944. (U.S. Coast Guard)

During his first cutter assignments, Henry had worked in the Stewards Branch as a mess attendant. Prior to World War II, minorities were segregated into food service positions, such as cooks, stewards and mess attendants. According to military regulations, these enlisted positions had no petty officer status. For example, an African-American Chief Steward might receive the pay of a Chief, but he held no rank over any other enlisted man on the cutter. Northland’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Carlton Skinner later recounted how this situation changed with Oliver Henry:

He came to me and asked if he could be examined for the rating of Motor Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class. . . . I had him examined and submitted his papers, which were of the highest caliber . . . . the response came back from [the] Enlisted Personnel [Office] at Headquarters that he could not be rated as a Motor Mechanic because he was a Negro and Negroes were only accepted in the Steward’s Branch. . . . I appealed the decision, through channels, and as a result, Enlisted Personnel reversed itself and authorized his transfer to Motor Machinist’s Mate . . . .

Lt. Cmdr. Carlton Skinner in posed Coast Guard Public Affairs photograph. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Undated photo of Cmdr. Carlton Skinner aboard the USS Sea Cloud along with several African American crewmembers. (Photo courtesy of Coast Guard historian’s office)

When Henry shipped out on board the Northland, he was a Mess Attendant 2nd Class. Within a year, he transitioned to Northland’s engineering section and rocketed through the petty officer ranks. Only a year after joining the engineering staff as a Fireman 1st Class, he made Motor Machinist Mate 1st Class. Just a few months later, at the end of 1943, Henry made Chief. By the time he stepped off the Northland in early 1946, Henry was not only a Chief Motor Machinist Mate; he was Northland’s Assistant Engineering Officer and its Assistant Damage Control Officer. It was a remarkable rise for an African American in a segregated service and proved the worth of every Coast Guardsman no matter their skin color.

During his career, Henry served on board nearly 10 cutters and as many shore bases. He welcomed additional responsibilities as part of his duty. For example, while serving aboard the high-endurance cutter Mackinac, he was Assistant Engineering Officer, Engineering Watch Officer, Maintenance Officer, Electrical Officer, After Repair Party Officer, Deck Machinery Officer, “E” Division Officer, Motion Picture Officer, Small Boat Maintenance Officer and Refrigeration Officer. He also oversaw spare parts, stowage and requisitions, and served on the Member Auditing Board and the Member Training Board.

Photo of Oliver Henry with officer corps of the high-endurance cutter Mackinac in 1952. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Photo of Oliver Henry with officer corps of the high-endurance cutter Mackinac in 1952. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In 1950, while stationed in New York, Henry advanced to warrant officer, climbing the warrant ranks for the rest of his Coast Guard career. At about the same time, he met and married Jean Ellen Taylor. Jean and their daughter Jo-Ann travelled with him as he moved to duty stations in New York, Washington, D.C., the Philippines and California. Later, their daughter married Coast Guard trailblazer, Merle J. Smith, Jr., the first African-American graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and Bronze Star Medal recipient of Vietnam. It was Henry’s family that brought him the greatest pride, including his daughter Jo-Ann and his grandchildren.  Like her father, Jo-Ann achieved excellence in her own field of academics while his grandson Justin Cardoza followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and served in the Coast Guard.

In 1966, Henry retired and moved his family to Southern California where he began a second career with the U.S. Maritime Administration. As always, Henry’s character, integrity and pursuit of excellence proved remarkable. He retired as deputy director of the Maritime Administration’s Southern California office after 20 years of distinguished service.

In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order desegregating the military services. Before Truman’s executive order and well after it, Oliver Henry blazed a trail for minorities in the Service and helped steer the Coast Guard toward greater diversity and racial equality. He was the first minority service member to move from the wardroom to the engine room and rose rapidly through the ranks of enlisted mechanics. He was one of the Service’s first minority warrant officers and served over 15 years of his 26-year career as a warrant. As a leader and role model, he mentored many of the next generation of Service leaders, including officers and enlisted men.

Official service photograph of Chief Warrant Officer Oliver Henry just prior to his retirement in 1966. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Official service photograph of Chief Warrant Officer Oliver Henry just prior to his retirement in 1966. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In 1987, Oliver Tony Henry, Jr., passed away at the age of 66 and was laid to rest in Inglewood, California. His pioneering career exemplified the Coast Guard’s core values of “honor, respect and devotion to duty” and serves as an inspiration to other enlisted men and women. Later this year, Oliver Henry will be honored as namesake of the Fast Response Cutter WPC-1140 to be stationed in Guam.

 


Leave a Comment




We welcome your comments on postings at all Coast Guard sites/journals. These are sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard to provide a forum to talk about our work providing maritime safety, security and stewardship for the American people to secure the homeland, save lives and property, protect the environment, and promote economic prosperity.

The information provided is for public information only and is not a distress communication channel. People in an emergency and in need of Coast Guard assistance should use VHF-FM Channel 16 (156.8 MHz), dial 911, or call their nearest Coast Guard unit.

All comments submitted are moderated. The Coast Guard retains the discretion to determine which comments it will post and which it will not. We expect all contributors to be respectful. We will not post comments that contain personal attacks of any kind; refer to Coast Guard or other employees by name; contain offensive terms that target specific ethnic or racial groups, or contain vulgar language. We will also not post comments that are spam, are clearly off topic, or that promote services or products.

The U.S. Coast Guard disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from any comments posted on this page. This forum may not be used for the submission of any claim, demand, informal or formal complaint, or any other form of legal and/or administrative notice or process, or for the exhaustion of any legal and/or administrative remedy.

If you have specific questions regarding a U.S. Coast Guard program that involves details you do not wish to share publicly please contact the program point of contact listed at http://www.uscg.mil/global/mail/

The U.S. Coast Guard will not collect or retain Personally Identifiable Information unless you voluntarily provide it to us. To view the U.S. Coast Guards Privacy Policy, please visit: http://www.uscg.mil/global/disclaim.asp

Please note: Anonymous comments have been disabled for this journal. It is preferred that you use your real name when posting a comment. WE WILL POST THE NAME YOU ENTER WHEN YOU SUBMIT YOUR COMMENT. Also, you are welcome to use Open ID or other user technologies that may be available.